Psychological Thrills from Brubaker/Phillips, Fordham/Morton Reimagine Gatsby, Scioli on Jack Kirby, Tomine's Masterly Memoir | Graphic Novels, June 2020

Emotionally complex dramas from the powerhouse creative team of Brubaker/Phillips; this first volume in an ongoing horror series is a memorable standout; Fitzgerald’s incisive exposé of the shallow excesses of the elite feels startlingly fresh; Pulido packs enough twists and turns to fill a door-stopping epic into 18 brilliantly concise chapters

Abnett, Dan (text) & Juan Jose Ryp (illus.). Rai. Bk. 1. Valiant. Aug. 2020. 128p. ISBN 9781682153604. pap. $9.99. Rated: Teen+.  SF
After the orbiting metropolis he was created to defend is destroyed, powerful android warrior Rai and his companion Raijin travel across 41st-century America on a mission to stop the Red King, a nefarious warlord, from using an artificial intelligence called Father to conquer the world. After running afoul of a band of vicious scavengers, escaping the clutches of the holographic host of a display home driven mad by eight centuries of solitude, and surviving an attack by positronic dinosaurs, Rai and Raijin arrive at a utopian human community called Hope Springs—which is soon besieged by their enemies. This collection includes the first five single Issues of the ongoing series. ­VERDICT Abnett (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Omnibus) grants Rai, who yearns for a life of peaceful simplicity, even as he ruthlessly destroys his enemies, an impressive complexity, and illustrator Ryp (X-O Manowar: Deluxe Edition. Bk. 2) ­renders carnage with panache. Postapocalyptic cyberpunk samurai odysseys don’t get much better than this.

Barnes, Rodney (text) & Jason Shawn Alexander & Luis NCT (illus.). Killadelphia. Vol. 1: Sins of the Father. Image. Jul. 2020. 176p. ISBN 9781534315693. pap. $9.99. Rated: Teen+. HORROR
After Philadelphia homicide detective James Sangster is killed in the line of duty, his estranged son J.J., a beat cop in Baltimore, takes up his final, fatal investigation. The trail leads J.J. to a pair of bizarre discoveries—a horde of vampires have gathered in the city of brotherly love, and his father is now one of them. Once reunited, James and J.J. team with a brave medical examiner to do battle against the undead and their leader, James Adams, the second U.S. president. Disappointed at how American society has progressed in the centuries since his supposed death, Adams has built an army of the undead that he plans to lead in a new revolution. The premise might sound somewhat silly, but it’s actually effectively scary owing to the gritty, intense script by Barnes (Quincredible. Vol. 1: Quest To Be the Best) and Alexander’s (Spawn: Vengeance) knack for producing disturbing imagery. VERDICT A strong sense of place, an offbeat take on vampire mythology, and gorgeously grim illustration combine to make this first volume in an ongoing horror series a memorable standout.

redstarBrubaker, Ed (text) & Sean Phillips (illus.). Cruel Summer. Image. Jul. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781534316430. $34.99. Rated: Teen+. MYS
In the summer of 1988, vicious career criminal Teeg Lawless becomes infatuated with Jane, a mysterious con artist drawn to his ferocity, much to the chagrin of Teeg’s 16-year-old son, Ricky. Unnerved at seeing his father embrace something like domesticity, Ricky becomes increasingly reckless and erratic, alienating best friend Leo, a young thief who prides himself on his overly cautious approach to criminal activity. Teeg enlists Leo’s father to help him pull off a major heist he believes will provide him and Jane with a fresh start. But when Jane and Ricky form a bond, and a private detective obsessed with saving Jane from a life on the run arrives in town, all involved are set on a ­collision course that can only end in tragedy. VERDICT The powerhouse creative team of Brubaker and Phillips (Pulp, reviewed below) combine elements of noir and coming-of-age stories in this psychologically and emotionally complex drama about desperate men and women daring to strive for better lives in a violent world where hope and love are dangerous liabilities.

Brubaker, Ed (text) & Sean Phillips & Jacob Phillips (illus.). Pulp. Image. Aug. 2020. 72p. ISBN 9781534316447. $16.99. Rated: Teen+. M 
In 1930s New York, Max Winter is an aging author of pulp novels set in the Old West, which he bases on his own exploits as a bandit in his youth. Low pay, lack of creative control, the rise of fascism in Europe, and his own failing health have Max feeling trapped until he meets Jeremiah Goldman, a former Pinkerton agent who hunted Max and his gang across the southwest 40 years earlier. When Jeremiah suggests the two team up and use an upcoming Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden as cover to steal a vast sum of cash collected by American Nazis as a donation to the Fatherland, Max sees a chance to relive his glory days and ensure a comfortable future for his family. The ensuing twists and turns are thrilling, but what lingers beyond the last page is a melancholic longing for an America that only ever existed in adventure stories. VERDICT Eisner Award winners Brubaker and Phillips (Kill or Be Killed Deluxe Edition), joined by artist Jacob Phillips (Cruel Summer), continue their streak as the best team in comics, delivering more intrigue and wonderfully developed, memorable characters in 72 pages than most creators can manage in twice as many. [Previewed in Douglas Rednour’s Graphic Novels Preview, “Picture This,” LJ 4/20.]

Fitzgerald, Scott & Fred Fordham (text) & Aya Morton (illus.). The Great Gatsby: The Graphic Novel. Scribner. Jun. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781982144524. $30; pap. ISBN 9781982144548. $20. Rated: Teen+. LIT
Seeking a fresh start after returning home from the trenches of World War I, Nick ­Carraway moves to West Egg, NY. His cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom, introduce him to the life of luxury enjoyed by the lavishly wealthy. But their lifestyle pales in comparison to that of Nick’s neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who routinely throws raucous parties on the grounds of his enormous gothic mansion. Nick is intrigued when Gatsby seems interested in becoming his friend but soon discovers that Gatsby is using him to get closer to his cousin—for Daisy is Gatsby’s singular obsession, and the inspiration for the elaborate mythology he’s constructed around himself. VERDICT Fordham (To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel) retains much of Fitzgerald’s singular prose, which Morton (His Dream of the Skyland) illustrates with an eye toward period detail and restraint that blossoms into expressive tableaus of vivid color at key moments. Here, Fitzgerald’s incisive exposé of the shallow excesses of the elite feels startlingly fresh nearly 100 years after its original publication.  

redstarFlenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. NYRC. Jul. 2020. 160p. ISBN 9781681374857. $37.95. Rated: Teen+. comics
A naïve 13-year-old girl named Bonnie and her wisecracking dog Trots star in this uproariously funny and bawdy collection of comics, which originally ran in National Lampoon magazine throughout the 1970s–80s. Much about Bonnie’s life is typical of fiction about young teens—she pines after boys, struggles with body image, endures a public education, and navigates relationships with family and friends. Yet Flenniken (How To Live Without Electricity and Like It) touches on these familiar tropes in order to twist and subvert them into a brutal satire of American culture from a brazenly feminist perspective. Bonnie’s charming naiveté is balanced by the savagery of her best friend, Pepsi, a preteen whirlwind of lechery and rage who veers from forcing a vasectomy on a neighborhood boy to protesting materialism by wandering the mall dressed like a giant tampon. Flenniken illustrates these strips in a style reminiscent of classic newspaper comics such as Little Orphan Annie, and while the exaggerated innocence this evokes heightens the subversive nature of the humor, it also highlights the genuine heart and sincerity Flenniken brings to examining the lives and desires of her cast. VERDICT An intelligent, uncompromising, and singularly candid chronicle of young womanhood.

Lemire, Jeff (text) & Phil Hester (illus.). Family Tree. Vol. 1: The Sapling. Image. Jun. 2020. 96p. ISBN 9781534316492. pap. $9.99. Rated: Teen+. Mys
Years after the disappearance of her husband, Loretta is still struggling to adjust to life as a single mother to teenage son, Josh, and eight-year-old daughter Meg, when Meg is suddenly afflicted by a strange rash that begins to transform her into a tree. The family soon finds themselves pursued by a group of vicious zealots determined to murder Meg in order to prevent an apocalypse; with nowhere else to turn, Loretta is forced to trust her estranged, possibly insane father-in-law. A mysterious healer in New York City offers shelter, but few answers as to Meg’s condition, especially as she begins to experience visions that hint at a mystical connection to others experiencing a similar transmutation. Lemire (Berserker Unbound. Vol. 1) balances a perceptive portrait of a family in crisis with propulsive action, perfectly suited to veteran illustrator Hester’s (Stronghold. Vol. 1) ability to present human drama as dynamically as he does brutal violence. VERDICT The shocking twists and intriguing mysteries packed into this first volume of an on­going series will have readers clamoring for future ­installments.

Noble, Danny. Shame Pudding: A Graphic Memoir. Street Noise. May 2020. 192p. ISBN 9781951491024. pap. $16.99. Rated: Teen+. MEMOIR
Noble (Junkyard Jack and the Horse That Talked) details her formative years with a special emphasis on her relationship with her eccentric Jewish grandmothers, Min and Ma. Paternal grandmother, Min, is perpetually cheery, while Noble’s mother’s mother, Ma, is spikier but nonetheless adoring, and both prove endlessly supportive of the author as she ages from a child to young adulthood. As a girl, Noble is obsessed with music, werewolves, and drawing; as a teenager, she becomes consumed by anxiety, self-doubt, and shame that prevents her from expressing herself. Early engagement with leftist organizations and political activism boosts her self-­esteem, and later she begins playing saxophone in a ska band and eventually works her way up to performing lead vocals. Through highs and lows, the Mas—as she collectively refers to her grandmothers—remains a constant source of encouragement and enduring love. VERDICT A sensitive coming-of-age story and tribute to how the author’s family shaped her into the artist she is, illustrated in loose pen and ink lines and distorted forms that exude Noble’s warmth for her characters.

Pulido, Rayco. Ghostwriter. Fantagraphics. Aug. 2020. 88p. tr. from Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg. ISBN 9781683963189. $19.99. Rated: Teen+. HISTORICAL FICTION
An enigmatic woman named Laia spends the summer of 1943 anticipating the birth of her firstborn child. She writes for “Doctor Elena Is In,” an award-winning radio show that offers desperate women advice on how to keep their husbands happy. She tells her neighbors that her husband is away managing his family estate…but then why is she paying a detective to search for him? Why does his family refuse to answer the detective’s questions? Also, there’s a serial killer on the loose; by the way, she’s only pretending to be pregnant. As some questions are answered and others are revealed to be even more puzzling, Spanish cartoonist Pulido (Sordo) keeps Laia’s motivations, and where readers’ sympathies should lie, unclear. A title card at the end of the first chapter describes the story as a farce, but it’s equally noir—and by the end, a particularly unsettling example of the genre. VERDICT Pulido packs enough twists and turns to fill a door-stopping epic into 18 brilliantly concise chapters in this slim volume, which won Spain’s 2017 National Comic Book Award.

Rall, Ted. Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party. Seven Stories. Jun. 2020. 224p. ISBN 9781609809942. pap. $18.95. POL SCI
Prolific cartoonist Rall (How Trump Stole 2020) opens this passionate argument that the democratic establishment works to undermine progressive causes in June 2016, with the release of 20,000 emails exposing the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) bias toward Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. After explaining various DNC attempts to undermine the Sanders campaign, Rall details the history of progressive U.S. politics, beginning with ­Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debbs in 1912 and surveying the failed presidential runs of Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, and Ralph Nader. Rall lays out specific progressive policy and argues that most Americans actually agree with these ideas but reject candidates from outside the norm owing to the educational system and media propagating the idea that only traditional candidates from within the establishment could ever hope to win an election. Finally, he touches on policies enacted by the Trump administration—including the response to the Coronavirus pandemic—and concludes that, “the fight for the soul of the Democratic party may well wind up determining the fate of humanity.” VERDICT Rall combines prose, photographs, and single-panel political cartoons in this carefully researched, fervent plea for a reorganization of the current ­political system. 

redstarScioli, Tom. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. Ten Speed: Crown. Jul. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781984856906. $28.99. Rated: Teen+. BIOG
In this lively biography, Scioli (Fantastic Four) pays loving tribute to the creator of Iron Man, the X-Men, and dozens more classic characters. As a child living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kirby became obsessed with the colorful adventures he discovered in newspaper comic strips. Inspired by these stories, as well as folktales told by his mother and the futuristic imagery he found at the 1939 World’s Fair, he began a career as a journeyman cartoonist. After cocreating Captain America with his partner Joe Simon, Kirby was drafted and experienced harrowing combat in World War II. In the 1960s, he began a fertile period that saw him revolutionize the comic book industry, creating a slew of characters who still dominate pop culture. Scioli presents Kirby’s story through a carefully researched but fictionalized first-person point of view, capturing his larger-than-life personality and adding extra pathos to his final decades spent struggling to get credit—and compensation—for his massive contribution to American culture. VERDICT Scioli details Kirby’s life with the same passion and crackling energy the King of Comics brought to his own work. An essential text for fans of the medium. 

Scott, Walter. Wendy, Master of Art. Drawn & Quarterly. Jun. 2020. 276p. ISBN 9781770463998. $24.95. Rated Teen+.  satire/memoir
An aspiring artist named Wendy experiences the best and worst that the contemporary art world has to offer while working toward a master’s of fine arts degree at a prestigious Canadian university. Her professor is a has-been, obsessed with his past success and more concerned about beating traffic on the drive home than ­mentoring his students. Her classmates range from a glamorous, globe-hopping pseudo­celebrity to an intense, awkward try-hard planning a thesis project on “the geometry of bee dances and post-human art practices as a combined proposal towards anti-­accelerationism.” ­Author/illustrator Scott skewers the art world, narcissistic performative activists and academia, but goes beyond satire as Wendy’s solipsistic bubble bursts, exposing her as a young woman grappling with existential despair and profound questions about her own place in the world. Scott also examines the complexities of interpersonal relationships as Wendy’s classmates alternately bicker, hook-up, and grow codependent upon one another, and through Wendy’s fraught romance with an artist named Xavier, who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another woman. VERDICT A savage lampooning of the art world’s self-seriousness that makes some serious points about the artistic establishment and the difficulty that accompanies dedicating oneself to creative expression. 

redstarTomine, Adrian. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. Drawn & Quarterly. Jun. 2020. 168p. ISBN 9781770463950. $29.95. Rated: Teen+. MEMOIR
In 1995, a young Tomine (Killing and Dying) rages at his classmates for mocking his dream of becoming a famous cartoonist. His fury makes them bully him even more, thus setting the stage for the stories that follow in this funny, bracingly self-deprecating record of the countless humiliations Tomine experienced over the course of his career. Early success in the mid-1990s leads to a series of humbling visits to San Diego Comic-Con. These include the thrill of his first book tour that ends quickly when no one shows up for his signings, and when fans on a comic book cruise don’t bother hiding their disappointment at being seated with him instead of Neil Gaiman at dinner. From a less skilled creator, the litany of awkward encounters might have become repetitive; instead, ­Tomine’s mortifying misadventures become funnier and more emotionally resonant in the latter part of this memoir, as professional success and a growing family find the anger and anxiety that ruled the author’s early years transform into an insightful and profound vulnerability. VERDICT A hilarious, frequently cringe-inducing masterpiece from a fearless artist at the height of his powers.

Vigneault, François. Titan. Oni. Sept. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781620107799. pap. $19.99. SF
In the year 2192, MNGR First Class João da Silva is charged with taking control of Homestead Station, a mining colony on the planet Titan. After a century of supplying Earth with important resources, technological innovations have rendered the station increasingly obsolete, resulting in high tension between the station’s human overseers and the hulking, eight-foot-tall genetically modified native Titan workforce. João’s attempts to ingratiate himself among the Titans create suspicion among the human and Titan leadership, but gains him an ally in Phoebe Mackintosh, a Titan renowned for her prowess in gladiatorial combat. João and Phoebe both believe the other might be the key to saving Homestead Station from redundancy, but their efforts—and burgeoning romance—are undercut by forces working behind the scene who conspire to escalate the unrest. Soon the station is embroiled in a violent revolution that threatens to destabilize the solar system, and João and Phoebe are fighting for survival against enemies on both sides. VERDICT ­Vigneault’s (The Immersion Program) decision to establish his cast and world at a slow burn over the first few chapters pays dividends in the high-stakes second half of this thoughtful and unabashedly political sf thriller. 

Additional Graphic Novels

Chong, Vivian (text) & Georgia Webber (illus.). Dancing After TEN. Fantagraphics. Jun. 2020. 128p. ISBN 9781683963165. Rated: Teen+. MEMOIR
Chong was literally scarred for life by a rare reaction to a common medication. Her story is so horrifying that it would be easy to gawk and move on quickly. ­Instead, in this memoir, Chong’s confident voice draws out the complicated reality of a debilitating medical condition with precision and purpose. The titular TEN is Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a skin condition that causes burns and scar tissue all over the body, and in Chong’s case, an induced coma followed by blindness and a brush with hearing loss. Chong covers her treatment clearly, but her quest to make meaning from the mess takes center stage. Her mother lives on the other side of the world, her hired aide is unkind, her friends and former flames are unreliable, and so she seeks to make her life her own again—by learning to cook, swim, and train a guide dog, but also by creating art from her suffering. Chong’s narrative conviction and artistic direction blended with Webber’s wiry illustrations are all-enveloping, communicating her huge challenge without pathos. VERDICT A prime example of the graphic medicine genre, which illustrates medical conditions, often through lived experience, this work is engaging and informative but never feels teachy or preachy. [See ­Douglas Rednour’s “Picture This,” LJ 4/20.]—Emilia Packard, Tokyo, Japan


Tom Batten is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in the Guardian and The New Yorker. He lives in Virginia


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